Reviewed: Amalfi Coast walking holiday with Exodus
The Amalfi Coast is most often visited for sightseeing and seaside holidays. But keen walkers are also attracted by the footpaths high above the dramatic coastline, particularly the high-level 'Path of the Gods'. Several firms operate walking holidays in the area, including UK-based Exodus, who have been running an organised holiday at this location for years.
I travelled to the Amalfi Coast on a week-long Exodus walking holiday at the end of August/beginning of September. Accommodation was in the unassuming Hotel Le Due Torri in Bomerano. Bomerano is a sprawling agricultural village on a plateau in the mountainous upland of the Sorrentine peninsula, with a bus service downhill into Amalfi.
I booked my travel around six months in advance. Exodus sometimes offer discounts, so it is worth hunting around for special offers. I paid £957, which included British Airways flights and a single room supplement. I communicated with Exodus staff by telephone and email, and found the customer service was generally helpful. I was misinformed, though, about whether I could check in online for my flight, and next time I would book my own flights separately, in order to have more control over the arrangements.
Exodus had nominated a particular BA flight into Naples, and their guides collected us at the chaotic, baking hot Capodichino Airport in Naples. There were two groups staying at the hotel, my own walking group, and a much smaller group who were on a sightseeing week. We climbed on to a coach - old fashioned but with blissfully welcome air-conditioning.
I had chosen a 'solo departures' date hoping (although Exodus do not guarantee this) that there would be other solo travellers on the trip. This was the case, although there were also a foursome and two couples. The majority of the 16-strong walking party were British, with a small assortment of other nationalities. Many had travelled with Exodus before.
After the heat and stress of the journey, we were happy to begin the holiday by collapsing onto chairs on the hotel terrace and enjoying a glass of local wine while our cases were taken to our bedrooms.
Our walking guide was Albert, a very experienced leader, who had spent months in Bomerano leading these walks. His local contacts and knowledge were an important element of the holiday.
Accommodation: Hotel Le Due Torri, Bomerano
Hotel Le Due Torri is a typically Italian family-run off-the-beaten-track hotel. The slick establishments of the Amalfi Coast are only a short drive away, but up in Bomerano the old people sit out on the lawn with their dog running around their feet, and cockerels crow outside at ungodly hours. Bedrooms were mostly in an annexe behind the hotel's modern main building. I was lucky and was allocated a double room with a balcony; some of the other solo travellers had small singles. Although there was a rather mysterious electric fan unit, it did not emit cool air like an air-conditioning unit and at times the room was uncomfortably hot. During the week I came to be hugely grateful for the washing line on my balcony, as I hand-washed sweat-drenched clothes each evening.
Meals were convivial affairs served at a long table in the hotel's large dining room. A vegetarian option was available on request. The meals were simple and enjoyable, based around local produce, much of it from Bomerano itself. Six evening meals were included in the holiday's price; wine and some packed lunches were optional, reasonably-priced, and tallied up at the end of the week. The hotel is used to its Exodus guests and puts on a couple of entertaining cooking demonstrations in the kitchen.
Our week included four walking days, a sightseeing day and a free day. Typically our hikes started after breakfast and we arrived at our destination in the early afternoon.
This holiday involved a lot of descent and some ascent, much of it on rough steps, so it was demanding on the knees. In preparation I'd tried to maximise step-climbing in the weeks beforehand - avoiding the lift and taking unnecessary detours up flights of stairs - and been on a hilly cliff walk. Unless you're very fit, I'd recommend some preparation of this kind. In the heat of August in Campania, a steep, short ascent on our first morning was already enough to defeat one walker and stretch the rest of us.
Apart from that very first test, I didn't find the walking too demanding; I thought it was challenging to just the right degree. Since our hiking mostly started from high up, in or near Bomerano, we were generally descending or contouring along the coast. Long descents of staircases into Amalfi and Positano made a very scenic workout.
The scenery is what really makes this holiday superlative. Almost every moment of every walk offered a new and beautiful perspective on this dramatic coastline: woodland; sea; clustered villages; ruined cottages; a church tower; a cliff. And seeing the coastline from these high vantage points on footpaths feels very special. The famous Walk of the Gods and the paths near villages aren't hard to navigate for independent travellers, but some of the paths we used would have been difficult without a guide - Albert even went ahead with a machete on one overgrown stretch.
I loved seeing the agriculture of the coast close up, from the long orange tomatoes to giant squashes, grapes and lemons, grown on ancient terraces and on any scrap of dusty ground around local houses. On a woodland path we were warned to leap aside on a shout of 'Mule!' - we did see two of these being laden with timber, although luckily we never experienced them charging along the path.
There were many highlights of the coastal walking - the wide open views and panoramic drops to the sea were breathtaking. Thanks to the marvels of modern technology I uploaded one photograph from our first day's picnic spot: Positano from the mountains. One magical moment was when Albert ushered us through a locked gate into a gorge filled with running water, green moss and butterflies; it was like being transported to another continent.
Three of the walks finished at sea level - twice in Amalfi and once in Positano - and several of us enjoyed time on the beach. We were able to pay a reduced rate at a beach lido to use changing rooms, showers and sunbeds - an optional and very civilised way to cool off after the sweaty walking. From Positano we caught a ferry back to Amalfi, admiring yet another view of the coastline we had travelled on foot.
The trip back to the hotel after these walks was made by bus from Amalfi. The 40-minute journey was notable for the terrifying hairpin beds for which the Amalfi Coast is famous - exciting the first time, inspiring travel-sickness on subsequent occasions. As a sufferer from travel-sickness, this wasn't ideal - like the swinging corners on the drive from Naples - but that was a price to pay for the holiday.
Sightseeing and free time
We had time to explore the little towns after our walks, and also a free day to spend as we wished. I took the public bus down to Amalfi and another up to Ravello, where I revisited the famous gardens, lunched with a new friend on one of Ravello's hotel terraces, and then walked quickly down picturesque paths to Minori (more steps!), where I was just in time to catch a ferry to Amalfi. After watching a colourful folklore procession in Amalfi I had some dinner and caught a bus back up to Bomerano.
As well as coastal walking and one free day, the holiday also included a trip to Pompeii and Vesuvius. I opted out of the guided tour of Pompeii, as I'd visited before, and had a very enjoyable time wandering around the back streets of the ancient town on my own and seeking out frescoes, before meeting up with the rest of the group. Vesuvius, our next port of call, is one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, and walking around the rim of its crater was the last thing I would have expected to find myself doing. But I did, even joining the small group who left the main tourist path and made the complete circuit with a local guide - a very exposed walk on loose terrain, which was nearly too much for my nerves. I felt a great sense of achievement (and relief) as I drank a beaker of local Lacryma Christi wine from a plastic beaker at a kiosk overlooking the crater where we rejoined our companions. Who would have thought this would be one of my most memorable moments of the year?
I was initially uncertain about this holiday - I'm an independent traveller, and being trapped with 15 strangers following someone else's itinerary was a challenging concept. But walking with a guide is a great way to explore these paths without the worries or practical difficulties of hiking alone. Walkers are generally congenial people, so the company was also pleasant. Hiking along the more remote paths, seeing hidden sights, and experiences like the descent to Amalfi past a chain of abandoned paper mills gave a much more intimate acquaintance with the Amalfi Coast than a standard resort holiday. August is really a bit too hot for this kind of endeavour, but despite the constant heat and sweat, my strongest memories are of the views, the blue sky and sea, the butterflies and the fresh air and of the high slopes. There really can't be many one-centre walking weeks where you could enjoy such consistently marvellous and changing scenery. Combined with the food, the Italian warmth and the excursions, it is no wonder that this Exodus holiday has such high ratings from past travellers.
The trip was well-organised and I thought it was quite good value for money. One or two meals weren't included (the trip notes make this clear) and a few optional activities were at extra expense - these included the guided tour of Pompeii, the extended walk on Vesuvius and admittance to beach establishments. The hotel was good at providing practical advice and also organising transport and assistance - on the free day some members of our group paid for a trip to the Roman ruins of Herculaneum. I was disappointed that one included activity - a mozzarella-making demonstration - was cancelled.
Aside from the heat, the only problem with our trip was the differing abilities and walking pace of participants. As the group only had one walking leader, we had some frustrating periods on two walks where the front-runners were forced to wait extreme lengths of time, while Albert returned to aid someone at the back who was struggling. Two leaders would have been a help in this situation. Once the unfortunate invalid had been helped into a taxi (and I believe, discouraged from attempting future walks) the rest of the hiking went much more smoothly, with the range in walking speed no more than one might expect and easily accommodated.
I returned from the holiday feeling energised - and regretful to be leaving. Spending several hours of each day out in the sunshine, walking and breathing in fresh air, resulted in a great sense of well-being and also increased confidence in my fitness.
Prepare for the steep ups and downs. And long flights of steps. Some of our group felt that the trip was tougher than Exodus's rating suggested - I think this was partly due to the heat. I don't normally have time for day-long walks, nor do I exercise, but I did attempt a little preparation for this trip, as described above, and I found the walking quite manageable.
Long trousers are a good idea for overgrown sections of path, and a hat and sunblock are pretty essential for summer trips. If you're planning on visiting the beach, take some lightweight, minimal beach stuff along - a thin trekking towel will save the cost of hiring a beach towel, and flip-flops are a good idea for the pebble beaches. If you like walking with a stick, you may find one helpful; personally I find them a bother and would rather have my hands free. Terrain varies from paved paths to scree to short stretches of scrambling over rock. I wore a strong pair of leather walking boots, and also a lightweight semi-open pair of North Face shoes; the latter were cooler in the heat but I did have to empty grit out on a regular basis. Exodus provide detailed trip notes for their holidays; read this carefully to confirm the holiday is right for you. And whatever you do, don't forget a camera for those views.